An influential Arab-American group sought to increase pressure on Monday on the Joe Biden White House to use its influence with Israel to help free a US-Palestinian grandmother detained by Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank.
Samaher Esmail’s family also alleges that she has been beaten and denied access to medical attention.
At a briefing in Washington DC, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ director, Robert McCaw, said the detention of Esmail – one of three US citizens recently arrested by the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and Gaza – had shown that being an American was “no protection from Israel’s discriminatory, abusive and violent targeting of Palestinians”.
According to a lawyer who visited Esmail last week, the 46-year-old grandmother was covered in bruises along her wrists, arms and back. She was also only semi-coherent.
“The American government needs to do more to protect Palestinians, especially Palestinian Americans, from Israel’s government, and they should start now by securing the release of Samaher and all other Palestinian American prisoners,” McCaw said at Monday’s briefing.
Esmail’s sons Suliman and Ibrahim Hamed urged the US government to do more to demand their mother’s release from Israeli detention and return her home to the US for medical treatment.
They said if she was guilty of anything, it was of being a Palestinian American woman “who dares to demand justice and express her opinion”, Suliman Hamed said. “My mom was viciously beaten and taken into unlawful custody by the Israel forces from the West Bank.”
Esmail was detained in a dawn raid in early February in the village of Silwad, according to accounts from family members. It was part of a sweep of military arrests that advocates say has affected hundreds of Palestinians since Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel.
The IDF confirmed last week that Esmail had been arrested for “incitement on social media”, adding that “suspects arrested in the operation were transferred to the security forces for further questioning”.
IDF officials did not elaborate on why it objected to Esmail’s social media activity. But a Facebook profile that matches Esmail’s name and likeness displayed an image of her smiling next to text spelling out the date of Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel. And at least two images showed her posing with a rifle.
Ibrahim Hamed said his mother – who operates a convenience store in New Orleans and worked as a paraprofessional for the largest public school district in Louisiana – had been kidnapped, blindfolded and taken away in handcuffs. A lawyer for the woman’s family told the Washington Post she was being held at the notorious Damon women’s prison.
Troy Carter, the Democrat congressman who represents much of New Orleans, posted on X that he was “aware of and extremely concerned by the detainment of Samaher Esmail … in Palestine”.
“I have been in contact with the American embassy and the state department to inquire why a US citizen is being held,” Carter said.
In an interview with the Guardian last week, Ibrahim Hamed said Biden’s recent remarks about the treatment of American citizens in the region should apply equally to all citizens. “We’re paying our tax money to do what – to fund the people who are oppressing us?” Hamed said. “So when is this oppression going to stop?”
Concerns over Esmail’s detention come as two Palestinian American brothers, Borak and Hashem Alagha, 18 and 20, were detained last week in Gaza in a raid west of Khan Younis that has been designated a “safer zone” by the IDF, according to a family member.
“We want to know more about the reasons here, and I’m confident that our ambassador, Jack Lew, is looking into” the situation and “trying to get more information and context here”, the national security council spokesperson, John Kirby, has said of the arrests.
The detentions come amid rising tensions between the government of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Biden administration over Israel’s military campaign on Gaza in response to Hamas’s attack.
More than 27,708 people have been killed in Gaza and 67,147 injured since the Hamas attack, according to the local health ministry. Israel has also detained about 7,000 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Prisoners Club.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has said lack of access to the detainees is a breach of international humanitarian law. “Wherever and whoever they may be, detainees need to be treated with humanity and dignity at all times,” the ICRC said.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, recently said the Hamas attack was not “a license to dehumanize others when the people of Gaza have nothing to do with the attacks”.
Separately, leaks from within the White House reported by NBC News paint a vivid picture of the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu reaching a breaking point as Israel’s campaign in Gaza continues. Among other things, Biden has purportedly referred to Netanyahu in private as an “asshole” and accused him of being impossible to deal with in the aftermath of the 7 October attack.